The Biden administration has issued updated guidance regarding constitutionally protected religious expression in public schools.
Such updates are required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act that reauthorized, with some amendments, the ESEA.
Both acts require that education agencies, in order to receive federal funding, annually affirm that they do not have any policy “that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools.”
The First Amendment protects religious freedom by prohibiting both government establishment of religion and government interference in religious expressions.
“A public school and its officials may not prescribe prayers to be recited by students or by school authorities,” the guidance states, while emphasizing that “nothing in the First Amendment, however, converts the public schools into religion-free zones, or requires students, teachers, or other school officials to leave their private religious expression behind at the schoolhouse door.”
“Teachers, school administrators, and other school employees may not encourage or discourage private prayer or other religious activity,” the guidance explains. “The Constitution does not, however, prohibit school employees themselves from engaging in private prayer during the workday where they are not acting in their official capacities and where their prayer does not result in any coercion of students.”
This school guidance comes almost a year after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, with a 6-3 majority finding that a high school football coach who led students in prayer following the conclusion of football games “was not engaged in speech ‘ordinarily within the scope’ of his duties as a coach.”
Public schools should be neutral toward religious faith and practice, neither preferencing nor hindering the free expression of individuals, the guidance notes. To maintain this balance, school employees acting in their official capacities “may not lead students in prayer, devotional readings or other religious activities.” They may also not express religious views when speaking or acting in their official capacity.
In addition, students cannot be compelled or encouraged by school employees to participate in, or refrain participating in, any religious activities. Students are free to express their religious beliefs while at school: this includes praying (individually or with other students) and speaking with their peers about matters of faith and practice.
The update provides guidance related to prayer in the following contexts:
- Prayer and religious exercise during non-instructional time
- Organized prayer groups and activities
- Teachers, administrators and other school employees
- Moments of silence
- Accommodation of prayer and religious exercise during instructional time
- Student assemblies and non-curricular events
- Prayer at graduation
- Baccalaureate ceremonies
In addition, guidance is provided regarding religious expression related to:
- Religious literature
- Teaching about religion
- Student dress codes and policies
- Religious expression in class assignments and homework
- Excusals for religious activities
Holly Hollman, general counsel and associate executive director of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), affirmed the guidance, noting that it does “a good job protecting students of all faiths and students who don’t practice a faith” and that it “is in line with that from prior administrations from both parties.”
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, applauded the guidance because it “centers the religious freedom of public school students” and “emphasizes that public school employees, including teachers and coaches, may not coerce students to pray.”
Managing editor for news and opinion at Good Faith Media.